Admittedly, I’ve been slightly behind in posting to this blog the for CS849 course. However, papers from the last two lectures (June 9th and 14th) have been researching the motivations and social development of developers within FOSS communities. As such, I will discuss the contents of both lectures in one blog post. The papers at the heart of these blog posts are as follows:

  • Scacchi, W. 2007. Free/open source software development: recent research results and emerging opportunities. In the 6th Joint Meeting on European Software Engineering Conference and the ACM SIGSOFT Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering: Companion Papers (Dubrovnik, Croatia, September 03 – 07, 2007). ESEC-FSE companion ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 459-468.
  • Ye, Y. and Kishida, K. 2003. Toward an understanding of the motivation Open Source Software developers. In Proceedings of the 25th international Conference on Software Engineering (Portland, Oregon, May 03 – 10, 2003). International Conference on Software Engineering. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 419-429.
  • Ducheneaut, N. 2005. Socialization in an Open Source Software Community: A Socio-Technical Analysis. Comput. Supported Coop. Work 14, 4 (Aug. 2005), 323-368.

I will refer to these papers as [Scacchi], [Ye], and [Ducheneaut] respectively.

The [Scacchi] paper is basically a literature review of research studying a vast range of aspects related to FOSS development. For example, the paper discusses everything from the ad-hoc arrangement of personal resources (computers, bandwidth etc.) contributed to projects, their trust and accountability mechanisms, the systems for supporting cooperation and coordination, and even a discussion of the beliefs supporting FOSS development. On this note, one of the more interesting findings is that developers enjoy various freedoms that are not typically discussed in the literature. These freedoms include choice of:

  • What problem to work on.
  • What tools to employ.
  • When to release products.
  • When and what to review.
  • “What can be said to whom or without reservation.”

Another really interesting take-home message from this paper is that people participate in FOSS projects for a variety of complex reasons –but gaining “social capital” is one major contributor.

This notion of gaining social capital is also expressed in the [Ye] paper. This paper argues that the learning theory of “legitimate peripheral participation” is “one of the major motivational forces that attract developers and users to participate in OSS development”. Don’t let the name fool you. The motivation is not simply to learn, but instead to move from “apprentice” to “master” through participation in the community. Along with the new skills acquired, the apprentice gains social capital as they move through the ranks. I would argue that this latter point is the stronger motivation, and I think the authors would agree — otherwise there would be no way to explain the motivation of the “masters” or “core developers”. Regarding this point, Ye et al. argue:

“By establishing their own identities or shaping the identities of others through voluntary participation in the community practice, members help reproduce and preserve the community. This process is also in their own interests because their identity, skills, and reputation as master rely on the continuous existence of the community. Therefore, from the perspective of the community to which each member belongs, an individual’s altruistic behavior is ‘altruistically’ selfish and ‘selfishly’ altruistic” [Ye]

Later, on the same topic, the authors add:

“Relying purely on altruism makes OSS unsustainable. Intrinsic motivation is positively reinforced and amplified when social structure and conventions of the community recognize and reward the contributions of its members.” [Ye]

This idea of “selfish altruism” appeals to me as a leading hypothesis as to why people participate in these online communities. Specifically, one should not undervalue the importance or the appeal of belonging, and of being recognized and appreciated by a community.

This brings us to the final paper by Nicolas Ducheneaut. This paper stresses the dynamic nature of a FOSS project’s community, and describes (in detail) the various trials a new developer must face in order to achieve “core developer” status. On this topic, the paper follows the trajectory of two aspiring developers: one who achieves core developer status, and one who does not. Importantly, this paper makes it clear that the aspiring contributors are already very skilled developers who may bring well-developed (complete, or nearly complete) contributions. Nevertheless, it requires a tremendous amount of additional effort to successfully incorporate these additions into the project trunk. This would seem to suggest that learning alone cannot fully explain the motivation of successful FOSS developers; it is difficult to argue that significant technical learning is taking place when the hurdles are chiefly political and bureaucratic.

2 Comments

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